Climb Europe

10 Of The Best – The Durance Valley’s top Sport Crags in the Ecrins Massif, by Jerry Gore

In the words of the European crag climber’s bible - The Jingo Wobbly “Europe” guide book:
 “The Durance Valley makes power climbing here a soft summer recreation, with beer intervals! 300 days of sunshine a year = a wobbly paradise. This valley stays a lot drier than the majority of the Ecrins Massif.”

It was precisely these words that inspired me to relocate our family from the Cotswold hills to the Southern French Alps in 2003. And I am happy to say this area has just got better and better each year as new crags, sectors, routes and multi-pitch playgrounds continue to be developed year on year.

Briancon Climbs GuidebookCurrently in the Rolland family’s excellent guidebook “Briancon Climbs” there are 81 actual climbing sites (crags). Most of these sites have at least 2 or 3 different sectors and each sector normally has between 10 and 20 actual routes. Factor in six different rock types – Limestone, Granite, Conglomerate, Gabbro, Quartzite, and Gneiss – plus the aforementioned 300 days of gold each year offering year round cragging, and you can begin to understand what this place is all about. The grade range is exceptional from 3 metre high “family-friendly” crags just for children, to F8c+’s that will put most of your Spanish 9a’s to shame. And for the safety-conscious the quality and state of the routes are exceptional because these crags are systematically “maintained” by the FFME. So you will find a scarcity of loose rock and an abundance of well positioned and well drilled bolts.

So what’s on offer? Below is a list of at least “some” of the best crags in the Durance Valley. The locations covered in this article are easy to find and are well explained in the “Briancon Climbs” guidebook. But rest assured there are plenty more outcrops to go at. Testament to this is the fact that Ceuse, arguably one of the best sport crags in the World, is only an hour and a half drive from us and in 6 years I have only been there twice!

Spring Crags

Excellent slab climbing at AilefroideRocher Baron, Briancon
Altitude: 1360m.
Number of Routes: 63
Grade range: F3 - F7c
Max height of routes: 20m.
Rock Type: Quartzite
Family friendly: Perfect!
Months: April to November

One of the true Durance classics, Rocher Baron has a wide range of routes and best of all most of the grades are soft-touch. After a bumpy dirt road access you’ll find a large elevated grassy parking area. With great views of the Ecrins peaks the crag has a real “holiday-spot” feel. Yet car to crag is less than 30 seconds and the sectors are very family friendly with plenty of soft and flat picnic spots.

Great for beginners and groups you will find an array of mild and user friendly routes. The quartzite rock yields precise hand and foot holds albeit a little polished on the really popular climbs. Big secret is the West facing first sector which is rarely visited and yet offers 21 routes all between F6a and F6c. Best in the spring time this crag is also great in midsummer heat if there is a wind blowing.

Plampinet, Vallee de la Claree
Altitude: 1470m.
Number of Routes: 90
Grade range: F4c – F7b+
Max height of routes: 40m.
Rock Type: Limestone
Family friendly: Yes - easy walk-ins and forested so shady on hot days
Months: May to October

The perfect collection of spring crags. Located less than 15 minutes drive from Briancon, Plampinet lies half way up the beautiful Vallée De La Claree. This fantastic “couloir” takes you deep into the Massif Des Cerces (big sub-alpine rocks walls, and spectacular walking and mountain biking) or through into Italy via the famous road cycling Col de L’Echelle. There are three sectors: Paroi de la Grotte is three star quality mostly around the mid F6’s to low F7’s in grade difficulty. Le Rocher qui répond has two sections, the first one “Initiation”, is for beginners with grades around F4c to F5c, and a much harder section “Shana” which has a lot of F7a’s and F7b’s. And the third sector, Falaise des Ecureuils, has great soft touch F6’s.

Summer Crags

Mont Dauphin Fort, Guillestre
Altitude: 1000m.
Number of Routes: 136
Grade range: F3c – F8a+
Max height of routes: 30m.
Rock Type: Conglomerate
Family friendly: Good on the roadside boulders
Months: May to November

We are now into serious conglomerate territory and this rock has to be seen to be believed; giant water-washed pebbles lying in a matrix of “concrete” may not sound like climbing heaven but the jugs are huge and the pockets are just perfect so you find yourself travelling up impossible looking walls with conveyor belt ease! The conglomerate region here in the Southern Alps is big and actually comprises 4 massive and distinct locations but let’s concentrate on the largest and best in summer – Mont Dauphin Fort. Here you have 13 sectors and a grade range that runs from easy boulder routes at F3c right up to overhanging F8a’s for anorexic troglodytes! Classic routes, great for families and cool in the summer heat. So if you are anywhere near the Ecrins Massif this summer grab a baguette and head for the pudding stone!

Le Grand diedre at Le Ponteil cragAilefroide, Vallouise
Altitude: 1500m.
Number of Routes: 250+ single pitch, and 120+ multi-pitch routes
Grade range: F3 – F8b
Max height of routes: 500m.
Rock Type: Granite
Family friendly: Perfect!
Months: April to November

Ailefroide is France’s second centre of Alpinism after Chamonix. It contains more than 13 single pitch, and 22 multi-pitch crags. It has one of the largest and most beautiful alpine valley campsites in the Alps and from June to early September it’s full of ecstatic walkers, alpinists and er… rock climbers! The best single pitch crag for me is “La Gorge”, with perfect laser cut granite spoilt only by a tricky boulder strewn approach. Still this takes less than 10 minutes from the valley floor so not that bad! 5 minutes walk from La Gorge is “The Fissure D’Ailefroide” sector for beginners and families in search of routes under F6 and in between you have five fun multi-pitch routes.

The best crag days in Ailefroide comprise quality romps up pristine granite in the morning, a picnic lunch by one of the grassy and fresh alpine torrents, classic bouldering in the afternoon, and a relaxing chilled beverage in one of the many beer gardens during early evening. All followed by a classic French 4 courser at the L’Hôtel/Restaurant Engilberge. Fantastic!

Fessourier, Vallouise
Altitude: 1350m.
Number of Routes: 38
Grade range: F6a – F7c
Max height of routes: 40m.
Rock Type: Limestone
Family friendly: Not great! Scarcity of flat areas for toddlers and small children
Months: May to October

Okay this is the perfect hard-man’s crag - 38 routes all well bolted and up to 40 meters in height. A couple of warm-up 6c+’s just to avoid straining those precious digits and then it’s straight into 7th heaven. Pretty much all the routes in this part of the forest are between F7a and F7c and the quality is high. Fessourier is deep within the Vallouise forest and offers quiet, cool and contemplative climbing far from the maddening crowds of high summer.

Clapeyto, Queyras
Altitude: 2000-2550m.
Number of Routes: 51
Grade range: F4b – F6c
Max height of routes: 250m.
Rock Type: Limestone
Family friendly: Good - a huge picnic area 10 minutes walk below the crags!
Months: May to October

Three sectors give a big range of climbing in the exciting Queyras Regional Park – a totally different alpine ambience from the previously listed crags. Sector 1 is for those operating around the V.Diff to Severe level and is fun for kids. Sector 2 provides the main meat with 30 routes on rough, non-polished mountain limestone, and all pretty much in the 6’s. Sector 3 contains seven multi-pitch routes of which L’amateur d’abimes is the one to go for. This route is graded F6c+ (F6a obligatory.) which means that you “have to” be able to climb F6a to get between the bolts and if you climb it all free the hardest move will be F6c+.

Autumn Crags

Trango Tower at Les Traverses et la Vignette cragLa Grande Falaise, Freissinieres
Altitude: 1400m.
Number of Routes: 183 (including all 13 sectors)
Grade range: F5 – F8a
Max height of routes: 150m.
Rock Type: Limestone
Family friendly: Good, offering shaded quiet climbing and lovely picnic spots
Months: March to November

The Valley of Freissinieres actually has three distinct climbing locations but we will concentrate on the most extensive - La Grande Falaise. This is a long belt of outcrops that include 13 sectors. The most popular are Les Clematites, Grotte des Vaudois, Marmotine, and Pantoutrip, all of which you can climb year-round, even in winter when the friction is immense. I find the climbing here hard for a given grade, and it can be a little polished on the very popular routes. But the environment is superb – you are high above a beautiful and remote alpine valley and again the quality of climbing is a given. The routes are diverse from lots of slabby F5a-F6a warm-ups to fierce serried overhanging madness and finally cutting edge F8c’s. There are even a few multi-pitch routes and if it all goes horribly wrong you can resort to the classic 350m long Via Ferrata which runs the entire length of the crag!

Le Ponteil, Tramouillon – Saint Crepin
Altitude: 1500 - 1700m.
Number of Routes: 87
Grade range: Fr.5c - 7c+
Max height of routes: 180m.
Rock Type: Limestone
Family friendly: Not!
Months: March to November

The Ponteil is part of the Tramouillon/Champcella/Saint Crepin group of crags. It is effectively a huge right angled crag. The South-West facing side offers around 50+ single pitch sport routes. But the real gem is the South facing wall named “Le Grand Diedre”. This sector has 21 multi-pitch sport routes. The crag is ideal for those operating at around British HVS to E3 as the grade range is mostly between F6a and F6c, and routes are between 5 and 8 pitches in length. Descent is easy if you use the central crag ab stations. The only polished route is “Le Grand Diedre” and successful teams will be rewarded with magnificent views over the Durance valley into the Queyras Mountains. This is a well-equipped crag ideal after rain or in hot temperatures.

Winter Crags

Le Cirque, Le Pousin et la Englishman at Gaua cragLes Traverses, Vallouise
Altitude: 1200m.
Number of Routes: 95 (including all 7 sectors)
Grade range: F4c – F8b+
Max height of routes: 35m.
Rock Type: Limestone
Family friendly: Yes especially on the sectors below the road!
Months: Year round on certain sectors

A true crag for all seasons. You have 7 sectors to go at but in winter really only two – Traverses du Haut and Jonathan. The winter of 2008/09 was the best in terms of snow for 40 years in the Alps. And this area was no different. Yet even with 4 meter snow drifts and people accessing their houses from first floor windows I still climbed at Sector Jonathan throughout January and February that year, wearing just a cotton t-shirt! The Traverses crags are composed of limestone that varies from the typical edgy steepness of “Traverse du Bas” (Sector 3) to a sort of rippled flowing stone found at Sector 4 “Lezaroide”. With 10 minute walk-ins, year-round availability, very child friendly and fast car access from any of the big Durance Valley centres this was the crag that really convinced me to move out here full-time. There are few classic must-do’s but most provide good solid cragging where you can spend a quick hour work-out or a full day of on-sighting.

Le Pouit, Tramouillon – Saint Crepin
Altitude: 1316m.
Number of Routes: 84
Grade range: F4c – F7c+
Max height of routes: 80m.
Rock Type: Limestone
Family friendly: Yes with 2 minute walk-ins!
Months: Year round

Grades from F6a to F6c sum up this crag although there are many worthwhile and hard F7’s. Billed as “The perfect early or late season crag” this has resulted in some routes becoming a little polished especially in direct sunlight. But this never stops people coming and it is still a very popular crag amongst the locals. Don’t go in the summer, you will fry but do go to the adjacent tiny sector of Goua once here, where there are some soft touch F7b’s.

Info Box: Need to Know Stuff

Briancon Climbs GuidebookGuidebooks:
The “Briancon Climbs Guidebook” by Martine, Yann and Jean Jacques Rolland covers all the sport crags in the Brianconnais region that is available to buy from our shop.

Accommodation:
There are many good campsites in the Durance Valley. Probably the best is the campsite in Ailefroide with an office and outbuildings, and provides an excellent service for campers. (Mr. Geraint, Tel: +33 492 23 32 00). The village of Vallouise is central to the area and offers the usual necessary facilities such as shops, hotels, and restaurants. For further details on where to stay locally check out the author’s accommodation website www.AlpBase.com It provides details on self-catering apartments and chalets for climbers in the Durance area. Jerry offers free use of local maps and guidebooks, and is always on-hand for advice and local knowledge. You can also contact Jerry by email for route conditions and information at info@alpbase.com

Travel/access:
Calais to the Ecrins is a solid 10 to12 hour journey by car and via expensive French motorways. So the advice is to fly to Turin and car hire from there. Transfer by car from Turin to Briançon is 2 hours and your own transport around the Durance Valley is a distinct advantage if you really want to see the area.

Food:
Food and things are generally cheaper here than in the Northern Alps around Chamonix. If you do decide to eat out book in advance if in high season and seek local advice as the quality of restaurants varies greatly. Also be aware that this area of France is very layed back. Shops are shut between 12 and 2pm (often to 3pm) and are often shut all day Sunday and Monday.

Seasons:
For sport rock it is definitely possible to crank hard year round. Use the above list divided into seasons as a guide and check out the guidebook descriptions of each crag. This area is akin to a Mediterranean climate but in the mountains. So low-lying south facing crags in summer can often be a no-go area. Conversely North facing crags in winter more often than not are covered in snow and ice!

Book apartments in Vallouise from AlpBaseThis article was written by Jerry Gore who runs AlpBase accommodation for climbers, hikers, skiers, mountain bikers and road cyclists. For details on where to stay locally check out the author’s accommodation website www.AlpBase.com Jerry and Jackie Gore have lived year-round in Vallouise since 2003. They offer 15 self-catering apartments and chalets to sort all budgets. Jerry offers free use of local maps and guidebooks, and is always on-hand for advice and local knowledge. To book or for further information you can contact Jerry and Jackie by email at info@alpbase.com

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Briancon Climbs Guidebook

The Briancon Climbs Guidebook covers all the sport crags in the Durance Valley.  Buy this guidebook from our shop.


Book apartments in Vallouise from AlpBase

Book accommodation around Vallouise in the Durance Valley via AlpBase, who have 15 self-catering apartments to rent to suit all budgets